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Ruby Carter, the American Beauty queen of the night club-sporting world, shifts her operations from St. Louis to New Orleans (which kind of belies the Western genre designation), mostly to get away from prizefighter Tiger Kid. Installed as the prize attraction of "The Sensation Club", ran by Ace Lamont, she quickly becomes the toast of the town and also marked as personal property by Ace, arousing the fury of Ace's former flame, Molly Brant. The not-overly-bright Tiger comes to town and is set for a title match with the champ by Ace, while the latter also has him steal some of Ruby's jewels. Ruby, no dumb-belle, figuring Ace has the fix in on the fight, uses some of her other jewels to lay a trap for Ace. Tiger confesses, after the fight, to Ruby his role in the jewel robbery while she hints that Ace was the one who slipped him the knock-out drops. Tiger goes after Ace, who, for his own reasons, has Molly locked in a closet. Written by
Les Adams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
BELLE OF THE NINETIES (Paramount, 1934), directed by Leo McCarey, stars the "calm and collected" Mae West, contributor to the story, screenplay, and bedside manner dialog ("It's better to be looked over than overlooked"). In her fourth feature film and only 1934 release, it also became the first in a series of Mae West comedy/dramas to have the production seal-of-approval. While not up to the standards as her two previous 1933 efforts of SHE DONE HIM WRONG and I'M NO ANGEL, BELLE OF THE NINETIES has more of a reputation than West herself as being the movie to have gone through numerous production problems. Other than alternate titles before the selected choice, and Roger Pryor as the substitute for the original choice of George Raft, BELLE OF THE NINETIES contains several scenes ending with abrupt blackouts. Other than that, BELLE OF THE NINETIES ranks one of Mae West's most interesting, if not entirely successful screen efforts, with her witty one-liners making this more memorable than the plot itself.
Set in the Gay Nineties, circa 1892-93, in St. Louis, Ruby Carter (Mae West), a burlesque queen (and "The most talked about woman in America"), is much admired by many male patrons who attend the café to watch her perform. She sincerely loves a prizefighter called "The Tiger Kid" (Roger Pryor). Feeling Ruby's affection will complicate the Tiger's chances for the championship fight, Kirby (James Donlan), his manager, schemes to break up their relationship. Unaware of the set-up, Ruby leaves St. Louis for New Orleans to accept an engagement working for Ace Lamont (John Miljan) at his Sensation House. While there she stirs up much attention, especially with Ace, causing his mistress, Molly Brant (Katherine DeMille) to become extremely jealous. Having no interest in Ace, Ruby focuses her attention to Brooks Claybourne (Johnny Mack Brown), a young millionaire now supporting her with expensive diamonds and jewelry. Sometime later, Kirby, along with his star fighter, Tiger Kid, arrive in New Orleans where the Tiger is to fight the Champ in a boxing match being promoted by Ace. Ace, jealous of Ruby's affection towards Brooks, hires Tiger to act as the masked bandit to steal her jewelry while on a carriage ride. Later, Ruby spots Tiger is seen conversing with and giving the Ruby's jewelry Ace. Suspecting some sort of setup, Ruby avenges herself on both men, leading to the unexpected murder of one of them.
With a smooth mix of newer songs (by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow) and nostalgic tunes from the nineties era, such as "And the Band Played On" (better known as "The Strawberry Blonde"), introduced through underscoring during the opening credits, the soundtrack to BELLE OF THE NINETIES includes: "Here We Are" (sung by chorus); "My American Beauty" (sung by Gene Austin with Mae West appearing in tableaux posing as a butterfly, rose, bat, spider and finally the Statue of Liberty); "When a St. Louis Woman Goes Down to New Orleans," "I Hate to Wait," "My Old Flame," "Those Memphis Blues" (by W.C. Handy) and "Troubled Waters" (all sung by West). With the tunes presented and performed, "My Old Flame," is noteworthy. Set at night, West, smoking a cigarette, stands on the outside terrace watching her maid and beau (Libby Taylor and Sam McDaniel) taking part of Brother Eben's prayer meeting. She sings while the spiritual group of Negroes are seen waving their arms as they are being saved in having their sins washed away in the river. The use of super imposing effects between West and the attendees of the prayer meeting, along with shadowy images reflection from the river, is done quite effectively.
In the supporting cast is Warren Hymer ("Hi, Ruby, this is your Bunny Boy." Ruby: "Bunny Boy? I don't know any rabbits"), and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra during the the "Memphis Blues" number.
Although Mae West is usually the central focus, veteran actor John Miljan (1892-1960) as the villainous Ace Lamont, nearly steals the film his leading lady. West's on screen character description of Ace is summed up with this amusing quote: "That guy's no good. His mother should have thrown him out and kept the stork." In their "love" scene, Ace (Miljan) compliments Ruby about her "golden hair, fascinating eyes, alluring smile, lovely arms ..." Ruby quickly responds, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Is this a proposal or are you taking inventory?" One particular scene shows Miljan's true evilness to good advantage as he socks his unwanted mistress, Molly (DeMille) in the jaw, placing her in a closet with the intention of burning down his own casino with her in it so not having to pay off a large gambling debt that would wiped him out financially. Miljan's sinister laugh and dark curly hair add to his snarling meanness. Roger Pryor as the lovesick prizefighter, is showcased well, though never rose to the ranks of stardom. The third billed Johnny Mack Brown is offered the least amount of screen time along with Frederick Burton and Augusta Anderson appearing briefly as his parents.
As with SHE DONE HIM WRONG, BELLE OF THE NINETIES is very authentic in capturing the flavor of the 1890s era, right down from period settings to costumes, compliments of costume designer, Travis Banton.
BELLE OF THE NINETIES, which went on video cassette in 1992, includes an added bonus of a theatrical trailer featuring certain key sings along with her singing "My Old Flame" differently from what was used in the final print. Nearly a decade later, BELLE OF THE NINETIES became the first Mae West feature from her Paramount years to be distributed on DVD. So far, both VHS and DVD formats have come and gone, as well as having acquired a rare cable TV broadcast in later years on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere July 3, 2014). (***)
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